Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Treasury Board staff treated to 'Instant Awards'

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OTTAWA -- Gold necklaces, hockey tickets, camcorders, iPods, spa visits -- even a gift card to the liquor store.

This is some of the half-million dollars of booty one federal department handed out to favoured workers in the last five years.

The Treasury Board Secretariat, with about 1,900 employees, now spends well over $100,000 each year on rewards for staff.

The annual value has quadrupled since 2006, when the Conservative government first came to power.

The value hit a peak of $135,000 in 2011, the year the Conservative government began cutting staff and programs to wipe out the federal deficit by 2015.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement has recently criticized the benefits available to public servants and publicly vowed to trim them, putting him at odds with unions.

But internal documents show his department has been generous with its so-called Instant Awards program, sometimes handing out goods and services worth as much as $500 a pop.

The cheapest employee rewards have been $10 gift cards for coffee shops or for a bowling alley. One worker was handed a French grammar book worth $14.65, which to some may sound more like a punishment than a reward.

At the high end, many employees were given $500 gift cards for use at Best Buy, for example, or at the downtown Rideau Centre mall for merchandise in most of the shops.

One worker in the "expenditure management sector" got a $50 gift card for use at any Liquor Control Board of Ontario retail outlet.

The internal documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, list the names of the workers but do not spell out the reasons for the hundreds of awards.

Such awards are considered taxable benefits under Canada Revenue Agency rules, and are often listed under both their "gross" value, reported to the taxman, and the "net" value in the hands of the worker.

A $10 gift certificate to Second Cup, for example, is listed as worth $14.29 gross, as reported to CRA. The difference is the tax the employee is expected to pay on the benefit, tax that is paid out by the department.

Awards programs have a cap of $500 net for each item or cash card.

Controversy over employee awards arose a year ago, when a New Democrat MP asked several departments whether they had purchased tickets for sporting events.

Clement's response was that Treasury Board had bought four employees $1,109 worth of NHL tickets to Senators' games between 2009 and 2011.

The minister banned purchases of sporting-event tickets soon after the NDP made the information public.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2013 A5

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